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Cultures and Fundamental Attribution Error

1. The fundamental attribution error is a tendency to view the main reasons for the person’s behavior in his/her internal motives, traits of character, or abilities, neglecting the situational or external factors influencing his/her decisions.  The cause of such approach is very often one’s limited knowledge of the judged person, the circumstances, or his/her perception of the situation. (Changingminds.org, n.d.)

The vast majority of people are subject to committing this error, although from cultural perspective the susceptibility differs a lot. The main difference lies in the perception of behavior by individualistic and collectivistic cultures respectively.

First of all, these cultures are very distinct in life outlook from multiple points of view. The attitude is formed continuously through the everyday practice. According to Kruglanski and Higgins (2003, p.608), the freedom of choice, merit-based rewards and awareness of self-worth cultivated in the individualistic societies moves the emphasis towards internal attributes, capacities and motives as the main components of the “self”.  At the same time, the corresponding issues in collectivistic cultures are embedded in the perception of “self” as an interdependent constitution, putting it in a rigid framework of norms and collective duties. In fact, the inner characteristics are acknowledged by them as well, but rather as created or influenced by the circumstances, and hence too specific to be considered integral. (Kruglanski & Higgins, 2003, p.610)

Krull (1999) in addition outlines the two main stages of the attribution process, thus adding to the “self-based” approach discussed above. He differentiates the primary inference and following correction, which are respectively dispositional and situational or visa versa. (as cited in Halim & Howe Chew, 2008, p.57) It is therefore believed, that individualists follow the dispositionism tendency in attributing, while collectivists apply situationism. (Halim & Howe Chew, 2008, p.57)

Thus, these explanations reveal the reasons for the limited commitment of the latter culture representatives to the attribution effect, as individuals from such background are much more likely to percept one’s actions from the situational perspective.

2. Self-presentation and social perception are closely interrelated issues. Social perception stands for the process of impressions formation and inference creation in the framework of social interactions. (Sanderson, 2010, p.6) Self-presentation at the same time is a pattern of behavior a person employs in order to achieve a social perception, most favorable for him. The main problem of both processes is that it is at most times very hard for an individual to both assess adequately his/her perception by others and interpret the situation or actions in an objective way.

The classical fundamental attribution error of social perception, developed into an actor-observer conflict is presented in the passage from Matthew 7:3-5. The thing is, that an individual tends to judge the actions of others from the dispositional point of view, that is seeing the judged person as responsible party for everything that happens to him/her. However, as an “actor”, one is likely to charge the circumstances for one’s failures, not admitting the personal qualities to be determinant. That is what happens to the one Jesus is talking to in this passage: as an “observer” one is ready to blame one’s brother for a tiny flaw, at the same time totally justifying his/her own personal significant drawbacks simply not paying attention to them (having “a plank in the eye”).

Self-presentation is also connected with misperception. One wants to seem better than he or she is, often already possessing an elevated self-esteem. Offering help to the brother, the “hypocrite” from Matthew 7:3-5 was on the one hand working on his/her self-presentation as a caring and helping person. On the other hand, he/she tends to perceive him- or herself in an overly positive way, as in fact he/she is simply not capable of taking out the speck due to personal significant hindrances.

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